To the outside world, the goals coach LaNay Larson set for the Academy of Art women’s basketball team would have seemed lofty. But the girls in her locker room never stopped believing, even when the season appeared to be slipping away.
The Urban Knights (23-8) have already achieved two of their coach’s goals by notching their first 20-win season and winning the PacWest Conference tournament title. They’ll reach a third goal in Bellingham, Wash., on Saturday when they step on the court against Western Washington in the first round the NCAA Division II Tournament.
“If you would have told people that Academy of Art is going to win a conference championship and go to the NCAA Tournament, they might have said, ‘Hmm, that’s pretty far-fetched,’” Larson said. “But we knew we had all the pieces of the puzzle, it was just a matter of putting them together.”
The Knights rushed out to a 12-3 start in their first season of eligibility for the Division II tournament. But their aspirations appeared to be in jeopardy when they lost five of seven games midseason, three by less than four points.
But the team gained confidence after beating Grand Canyon 63-55 in overtime on Valentine’s Day, winning nine straight games to finish the year.
The Knights are a balanced squad; eight different players have led the team in scoring this season. The team’s identity is centered on rebounding and defense, the Knights lead Division II schools in steals and turnover margin this season.
If the team has an emotional leader, it’s Ariel Dale, a third-team All-PacWest selection. The senior forward leads the team in assists (3.0) and steals (3.0) and is second in scoring (12.3) and rebounding (7.0).
“She’s such a well-rounded player, probably my best lockdown defender,” Larson said.
Second-team All-PacWest selection Jordan Rogers is the team’s leading scorer (13.5) and most consistent player.
She’s currently battling a knee injury and doesn’t practice, but she still managed to drop 17 points on Hawaii Pacific in PacWest title game.
“She has an extremely high basketball IQ,” Larson said. “It’s like having another coach on the floor.”
The eighth-seeded Knights might be long shots in their tournament game against the sixth-ranked team in the country, but Larson said her team isn’t fazed.
“The girls are playing with a lot of confidence,” she said. “They’re definitely the underdogs going into the game, but I don’t think they feel like it.”